Filled with small graces

My first Christmas in Ethiopia has been filled with small graces. In truth, I had been feeling melancholy for most of the month of December. Christmas in Ethiopia is celebrated on January 7 not December 25. But more significant to me is that Christmas is considered a minor feast in Ethiopia. There are no special traditions, decorations or even special hymns for Christmas. So I had really been praying to just get through December.

On December 21 I left for the far south of Ethiopia near the Kenyan border. We visited a mission school in Dhoqolle which can only be reached by a 35 km dirt road which has become quite bad because of the current rains. We spent the night there in pretty primitive conditions. However, the place is beautiful. It is as if the Borana walked until they ran smack into a mountain and then decided to build their traditional huts.

We (Awassa Vicariate) have started a food for work program in this area and I was able to meet with the Borana facilitators and job supervisors. I had developed a set of bound reports for them to use at the work sites and it was great to see how carefully each man was maintaining the reports. Some had even managed to find some sort of plastic to cover the report with to make sure the reports didn’t get wet or dirty. They were so proud of their work and eager to tell me all about it.

The Food for Work program was the brainchild of Abba Deeda, the first Borana priest. He realized that there were marginalized families who were falling through the various safety nets being offered by the government and NGO’s. In particular, he saw that women-headed households were often ignored by aid programs. Father Deeda worked with 5 Peasant Associations (PA) to select the families for the program and also to select the work sites. Each PA chose 20 families of whom at least 6 had to be headed by a woman. Each family provides a worker for 15 hours a week to clear brush from sites selected by the PA. Once the brush is cleared these sites will be managed by the PA and will provide pasture land for the Borana’s animals. The families then receive a monthly supply of maize and beans.

I returned late Friday night (12/23) from south Ethiopia. I was exhausted and I thought that was good — I figured I could sleep through the ‘ferenj’ (foreigner) Christmas. Almost immediately after I got home Claire, an Australian Franciscan lay missionary, called to invite me to Christmas Eve dinner. The dinner was wonderful. She made roast chicken with stuffing and gravy which I hadn’t had in over a year. She had decorated for Christmas and there were Christmas carols playing from her computer. It felt so good to me. Then at 9pm Father Sixtus celebrated midnight Mass for us in English! In a single stroke he moved the liturgical calendar in Ethiopia ahead by a few weeks. The mass was humble — it was held in a small chapel with none of the usual Christmas candles or altar clothes, and the english song book didn’t have any Christmas hymns. But it was magical, I felt connected to everyone celebrating a baby’s birth on this night.

After Gary’s death in December 2004 I lost my Christmas spirit. Gary and I had always gone all out for Christmas with two trees and a huge multi-course Christmas dinner that would last for hours. After his death I never again opened up all of the boxes with our Christmas ornaments and decorations. When I sold the house in 2010 I gave all of it away and I was actually relieved.

Somehow, Ethiopia has made me remember what I love about our American Christmas. The tree, the lights, the music and all of the preparation around spending time with family and friends. I am reminded that the joy of the season is wrapped-up with our joy over the birth of Jesus, a baby who was born in order that each of us might live. Of course our joy comes from knowing firmly that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. It is right to hang ornaments and lights, to sing Christmas carols, and to give gifts to show our love for our family and friends as we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. Ethiopia has renewed my Christmas spirit. Now, after seven years without, I’m looking forward to my next Christmas with a tree and decorations, and lots of Christmas music.

On Sunday December 25 I was invited to Christmas lunch with the Sisters in Tullo. It was a nice day. And even though I hadn’t yet received any of my Christmas packages from the states, I was happy. However, the crowning moment came on December 26 when my phone rang and woke me up at 12:30am. It was my family calling from California right after they had finished opening gifts and eating Christmas lunch. I got to talk to everyone — nephews, niece, brother, sisters — and to wish them a Merry Christmas and to tell all of them how much I love them. My Mom asked me to write a prayer to my family which she read right before Christmas lunch.

“On this Christmas Day we pray that we may all find hope and joy in the small things that God gives to us each day. In the birth of Jesus, God became small for us, so that we could understand, welcome, and love him.

We pray for the people of Ethiopia who somehow find dignity, hope and great faith even in the face of abject poverty and hunger. We pray that through our smallness and willingness to do those small things in humility, love, and trust that God might find a way to act through us in service to others. May God continue to bless our family. We pray this in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen”

I am looking forward to celebrating Ethiopian Christmas. But I’ve decided that, while it may not be politically correct, that it’s okay to also celebrate and actually embrace ferenj Christmas. Sometimes I need to let myself enjoy what is home to me but foreign in Ethiopia. I try to stay present to my life here in Ethiopia. But I also realize that I need to honor where I come from. It is the delicate balance between the two which is sometimes difficult for me to achieve.

I am thankful for all of the love, support and prayers that have helped me to find my way as I have struggled to really live this past year in Ethiopia. I wish all of you joy and God’s blessings during this holiday season and in the New Year.